Sport has always played a big role in Czech life. At the time of the national revival in the 19th century, the Sokol gymnastics movement was founded on the idea that a healthy body was a recipe not only for a healthy mind, but also for a civilised nation. In this episode of our series drawing from the archives, we hear recordings from the huge Sokol gathering of 1938 and from the Spartakiáda displays of mass callisthenics that replaced Sokol during the communist period. We also feature an ice hockey report from the Olympics in 1936, as well as Europe’s first ever live football commentary and the voices of some of the great Czech sportsmen and women of the 20th century, from Emil Zátopek to Martina Navrátilová.
If the legend is to be believed, the football match in October 1926 at Prague’s Letná stadium between Slavia Prague and Hungaria Budapest was the first to go out live on radio. The commentary itself does not survive, but the commentator Josef Laufer later recalled that the radio managers decided only to broadcast the first half. Not surprisingly, this did not go down well with listeners.
Josef Laufer later reported from the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany, commenting live as Great Britain beat Czechoslovakia, but only with the help of a team bristling with Canadians.
Two years later Czechoslovak radio was out in the streets of Prague to report on the huge international Sokol gathering in 1938. We hear one visitor, Andrew Byrne, describe the scene, sounding quite overwhelmed:
“Those costumes we passed along the street strike the western visitor as rather highly coloured, but in time the eye accustoms itself to the high colouring and you get the details – the beautiful embroidery, the harmonization of colouring, the manner in which the design of the clothing has been made to fit. For instance, the trousers and the long skirts and small jackets. All these things have been made to harmonize in such a way that you get the 20th century against a Greek background.”
Less than a year later, the Czech lands were occupied, and the Sokol movement was banned. It was revived immediately after the war, but the Sokol gathering of 1948 was to be the last for many years. When the communists came to power, Sokol was banned yet again. Instead they staged their own spectacular calisthenics displays in honour of the Communist Party. The radio archives have plenty of recordings of these spectacular events, held every five years. The final Spartakiáda was in 1985 and preparations were well under way for another in 1990 – an event that was hastily cancelled with the fall of communism.
Ten years earlier, at the time of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the communists were still very much in power. Part of the American response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a boycott of the event, which was joined by dozens of other western countries. In a game of tit for tat the Soviet Bloc countries boycotted the Los Angeles games four years later, and in the programme we hear the voice to the Czech shot putter, Helena Fibingerová, in defence of the boycott.
The Cold War had an impact on the careers of many top Czechoslovak sportsmen and women. An example was the great Czech runner, Emil Zátopek. In 1952 the Summer Olympics were held in the Finnish capital Helsinki and Zátopek was one of the heroes of the games. Despite his extraordinary style, with his face contorted, his head and torso swinging, and emitting sounds that earned him the nickname of “the Czech locomotive”, he went to Helsinki having already twice broken the world record over 20 kilometres. His dream at the Olympics was to win two gold medals: in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres. Czechoslovak Radio’s Bohuš Ujček and Vítězslav Mokroš were there to report on the event. They witnessed history being made.
Any programme on the history of Czech sport would not be complete without Martina Navrátilová, who was back in her native country in 2006 to play in the doubles of the Prague Open She spoke to Radio Prague:
“For most of my life I’ve been playing in front of a crowd that’s pulling for the other guy, because I was number one. So I’ve never felt at home. Even playing in the States, they only started cheering me on really at the end of my career. So now I get the crowd on my side pretty much everywhere I go. It would have been nice to have been able to play here more, but that’s how it goes. I’m just thankful that I’m still here now and enjoying every minute of it.”
The programme ends by returning to ice hockey and one of the best loved sports commentators of the last fifty years, Karel Malina, who died in 2015. We hear him remembering the 1947 world championships which were hosted by Prague. The national team was not on form, and they had lost in their group against Sweden. Their only chance of winning was in the unlikely event that the ice-hockey minnows Austria should beat the Swedes in their last game. As we hear, in sport sometimes miracles do happen.